1902 Encyclopedia > Ring


RING (Gr. _____, Lat. annulus).1 At an early period, when the art of writing was known to but very few, it was commonly the custom for men to wear rings on which some distinguishing sign or badge was engraved (iTrio-riii.ov), so that by using it as a seal the owner could give a proof of authenticity to letters or other documents. Thus, when some royal personage wished to delegate his power to one of his officials, it was not unusual for him to hand over his signet ring, by means of which the full royal authority could be given to the written commands of the subordinate. The enlarged part of a ring on which the device is engraved is called the " bezel," the rest of it being the " hoop."

Egyptian rings. . The earliest existing rings are naturally those found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. The finest examples date from about the 18th to the 20th dynasty; they are of pure gold, simple in design, very heavy and massive, and have usually the name and titles of the owner deeply sunk in hieroglyphic characters on an oblong gold bezel. Rings worn in Egypt by the poorer classes were made of less costly materials, such as silver, bronze, glass, or pottery covered with a siliceous glaze and coloured brilliant blue or green with various copper oxides. Some of these had hieroglyphic inscriptions impressed while the clay was moist. Other examples have been found made of ivory, amber, and hard stones, such as carnelian. Another form of ring used under the later dynasties of Egypt had a scarab in place of the bezel, and was mounted on a gold hoop which passed through the hole in the scarab and allowed it to revolve. Cylin- In ancient Babylonia and Assyria finger rings do not ders. appear to have been used. In those countries the signet took a different form, namely, that of a cylinder cut in crystal or other hard stone, and perforated from end to end. A cord was passed through it, and it was worn on the wrist like a bracelet. This way of wearing the signet is more than once alluded to in the Old Testament (Gen. xxxviii. 18, Revised Version, and Cant. viii. 6).

Etruscan rings. The Etruscans used very largely the gold swivel ring mounted with a scarab, a form of signet probably intro- duced from Egypt. Some found in Etruscan tombs have real Egyptian scarabs with legible hieroglyphs; others, probably the work of Phoenician or native engravers, have rude copies of hieroglyphs, either quite or partially illegible. A third and more numerous class of Etruscan signet rings have scarabs, cut usually in sard or carnelian, which are a link between the art of Egypt and that of Greece, the design cut on the flat side being Hellenic in style, while the back is shaped like the ordinary Egyptian scarabasus beetle.

Greek rings. Among the Greeks signet rings were very largely worn, and were usually set with engraved gems. In Sparta a sumptuary law was passed at an early time to forbid any substance more valuable than iron to be used for signet rings; but in other parts of the Hellenic world there appears to have been no restriction of this sort. In some of the numerous tombs of Etruria and Kertch (Panti-capseum) in the Cimmerian Bosphorus gold rings of great magnificence have been discovered, apparently of the finest Greek workmanship. One from Etruria, now in the British Museum, is formed by two minutely modelled lions whose bodies form the hoop, while their paws hold the bezel, a scarab engraved with a lion of heraldic char-acter. Many other examples of this design have been found, some of which are among the finest existing specimens of Hellenic or Graeco-Etruscan jewellery. Another remarkable specimen from an Etruscan tomb is of Etrusco-Latin work. The hoop of the ring is formed by two minute gold figures of Hercules and Juno Sospita, the stone being set between their heads. Many of the Greek rings are of thin repousse gold, so as to make the most show for the least cost; one fine example, early in date, has its hoop formed of two dolphins, holding a plain white stone.

Roman rings. The Romans appear to have imitated the simplicity of Lacedaemonia. Throughout the republic none but iron rings were worn by the bulk of the citizens. Ambassadors were the first who were privileged to wear gold rings, and then only while performing some public duty. Next senators, consuls, equites, and all the chief officers of state received the jus annuli aurei. One early Roman ring of the highest historical interest still exists; it belonged to Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, consul in 298 B.C., in whose sarcophagus, now in the Vatican, it was found in 1780.2 It is of plain rudely hammered gold, and is set with an intaglio on sard of a figure of Victory, purely Roman in style, dating before 300 B.C. In the Augustan age many valuable collections of antique rings were made, and were frequently offered as gifts in the temples of Rome. One of the largest and most valuable of the dactyliothecx was dedicated in the temple of Apollo Palatinus by Augustus's nephew Marcellus, who had formed the collection (Pliny, H. N., xxxvii. 5). The temple of Concord in the Forum contained another; among this latter collection was the celebrated ring of Polycrates, king of Samos, the story of which is told by Herodotus (see vol. xix. p. 417); Pliny, however, doubts the authenticity of this relic (H. N., xxxvii. 2).

Different laws as to the wearing of rings existed during the empire: Tiberius made a large property qualification necessary for the wearing of gold rings ; Severus conceded the right to all Roman soldiers; and later still all free citizens possessed the jus annuli aurei, silver rings being worn by freedmen and iron by slaves. Under Justinian «ven these restrictions passed away.

In the 3d and 4th centuries Roman rings were made engraved with Christian symbols. Fig. 1 shows two silver rings of the latter part of the 4th century, which were found in 1881 concealed in a hole in the pavement of a Roman villa at Fifehead Neville, Dorset, together with some coins of the same period. Both have the monogram of Christ, and one has a dove within an olive wreath rudely cut on the silver bezel. These rings are of special interest, as Roman objects with any Christian device have very rarely been found in Britain. Celtic Large numbers of gold rings have been found in many rings. parts of Europe in the tombs of early Celtic races. They are usually of very pure gold, often penannular in form—with a slight break, that is, in the hoop so as to form a spring. They are often of gold wire formed into a sort of rope, or else a simple bar twisted in an ornamental way. Some of the quite plain penannular rings were used in the place of coined money.

Throughout the Middle Ages the signet ring was a thing of great importance in religious, legal, commercial, and private matters.

Episcopal pairings. The episcopal ring was solemnly conferred upon the newly made bishop together with his crozier, a special formula for this being inserted in the Pontifical. In the time of Innocent III. (1194) this was ordered to be of pure gold mounted with a stone that was not engraved ; but this rule appears not to have been strictly kept. Owing to the custom of burying the episcopal ring in its owner's coffin a great many fine examples still exist. Among the splendid collection of rings formed by the distinguished naturalist Edmund Waterton, and now in the South Kensington Museum, is a fine gold episcopal ring decorated with niello, and inscribed with the name of Alhstan, bishop of Sherborne from 824 to 867 (see fig. 2). In many cases an antique gem was mounted in the bishop's ring, and often an inscrip-tion was added in the gold setting of the gem to give a Christian name to the pagan figure. The monks of Durham, for example, made an intaglio of Jupiter Serapis into a portrait of St Oswald by adding the legend CAPVT S. OSWALDI. In other cases the engraved gem appears to have been merely regarded as an ornament without meaning, as, for example, a magnificent gold ring found in the coffin of Seffrid, bishop of Chichester (1125-1151), in which is mounted a Gnos-tic intaglio. Another in the Water-ton collection bears a Roman cameo in plasma of a female head in high relief; the gold ring itself is of the 12th century. More commonly the episcopal ring was set with a large sapphire, ruby, or other stone cut en cabochon, that is, without facets, and very magnificent in effect (see fig. 3). It was worn over the bishop's gloves, usually on the fore-finger of the right hand; and this accounts for the large size of the hoop of these rings. In the 15th and 16th centuries bishops often wore three or four rings on the right hand in addition to a large jewel which was fixed to the back of each glove.

Cramp rings. Cramp rings were much worn during the Middle Ages as a preservative against cramp. They derived their virtue from being blessed by the king; a special form of service was used for this, and a large number of rings were consecrated at one time, usually when the sovereign touched patients for the king's evil.

Decade rings. Decade rings were not uncommon, especially in the 15th century; these were so called from their having ten knobs along the hoop of the ring, and were used, after the manner of rosaries, to say nine aves and a paternoster. In some cases there are only nine knobs, the bezel of the ring being counted in, and taking the place of the gaude in a rosary. The bezel of these rings is usually engraved with a sacred monogram or word.

Gemel rings. Gemel or gimmel rings, from the Latin gemellus, a twin, were made with two hoops fitted together, and could be worn either together or singly; they were common in the 16th and 17th centuries, and were much used as betrothal rings.

Posy rings. Posy rings, so called from the " poesy" or rhyme engraved on them, were specially common in the same centuries. The name posy ring does not occur earlier than the 16th century. A posy ring inscribed with "love me and leave me not" is mentioned by Shakespeare (Mer. of Ven., act v. sc. 1). The custom of inscribing rings with mottoes or words of good omen dates from a very early time. Greek and Roman rings exist with words such as _____, _____, _____, or votis meis Claudia vivas. In the Middle Ages many rings were inscribed with words of cabal-istic power, such as anam zapta, or Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the supposed names of the Magi. In the 17th century they were largely used as wedding rings, with such phrases as " love and obaye," " fear God and love me," or " mulier viro subjecta esto."

Memorial rings. In the same century memorial rings with a name and date of death were frequently made of very elaborate form, enamelled in black and white ; a not unusual design was two skeletons bent along the hoop, and holding a coffin which formed the bezel.

Merchants' rings. In the 15th and 16th centuries signet rings engraved with a badge or trademark were much used by merchants and others; these were not only used to form seals, but the ring itself was often sent by a trusty bearer as the proof of the genuineness of a bill of demand.4 At the same time private gentlemen used massive rings wholly of gold with their initials cut on the bezel, and a graceful knot of flowers twining round the letters. Of this kind is Shakespeare's ring, now in the British Museum, which was found near the church of Stratford; on it is cut a cord arranged in loops between the letters W and S. Other fine gold rings of this period have coats of arms or crests with graceful lambrequins.

Poison rings. Poison rings with a hollow bezel were used in classical times; as, for example, that by which Hannibal killed himself, and the poison ring of Demosthenes. Pliny records that, after Crassus had stolen the gold treasure from under the throne of Capitoline Jupiter, the guardian of the shrine, to escape torture, " broke the gem of his ring in his mouth and died immediately." The mediaeval anello della morte, supposed to be a Venetian invention, was actually used as an easy method of murder. Among the elaborate ornaments of the bezel a hollow point made to work with a spring was concealed ; it communicated with a receptacle for poison in a cavity behind, in such a way that the murderer could give the fatal scratch while shaking hands with his enemy. This device was probably suggested by the poison fang of a snake.

Papal rings. The so-called papal rings, of which many exist dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries, appear to have been given by the popes to new-made cardinals. They are very large thumb rings, usually of gilt bronze coarsely worked, and set with a foiled piece of glass or crystal. On the hoop is usually engraved the name and arms of the reigning pope, the bezel being without a device. They are of little intrinsic value, but magnificent in appearance.

Hebrew rings. Another very large and elaborate form of ring is that used during the Jewish marriage service. Fine examples of the 16th and 17th centuries exist. In the place of the bezel is a model, minutely worked in gold or base metal, of a building with high gabled roofs, and frequently movable weathercocks on the apex. This is a conventional representation of the temple at Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most magnificent rings from the beauty of the workmanship of the hoop are those of which Benvenuto Cellini produced the finest examples. They are of gold, richly chased and modelled with caryatides or grotesque figures, and are decorated with coloured enamels in a very skilful and elaborate way. Very fine jewels are sometimes set in these magnificent pieces of 16th-century jewellery.

Thumb rings. Thumb rings were commonly worn from the 14th to the 17th century. Falstaff boasts that in his youth he was slender enough to " creep into any alderman's thumb ring" (Shakes., Hen. IV, Pt. I., act ii. sc. 4).

The finest collections of rings formed in Britain have been those of Lord Londesborough, Edmund Waterton (now in the South Kensington Museum), and those still in the possession of Mr A. W. Franks and Mr Drury Fortnum.

[Further Reading] See Gorlaeus, Dactyliotheca, Lyons, 1601 ; King, Antique Gems and Rings, 1872 ; Jones, Finger-Rings, 1878; Edwards, History of Rings, New York, 1875 ; and various articles by Waterton and others in the Archeeologieal Journal. (J. H. M.)


3 See Waterton, in Arch. Jour., xvi. p. 307.
4 The celebrated ring given to Essex by Queen Elizabeth was meant to be used for a similar purpose. It is set with a fine cameo \__-trait of Elizabeth cut in sardonyx, of Italian workmanship.

The above article was written by: J. H. Middleton.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries